updated 8/7/2004 8:14:32 PM ET 2004-08-08T00:14:32

NATO launched its training mission for Iraqi forces Saturday, sending a small group of officers to Iraq to consult with authorities and prepare logistics.

The NATO Training Implementation Mission, led by Dutch Air Force Maj. Gen. Carel Hilderink, will initially consist of about 45 people. The first four officers left for Iraq on Saturday from a command center in Naples, and the remainder should deploy next week, NATO said in a statement.

“Through the training of the Iraqi security forces, the Alliance will help bring forward the day when international forces are no longer required in Iraq,” the statement said.

Alliance headquarters called it the official start of the training mission.

“The guys will essentially start work right away, establishing contact, offering advice and preparing the long-term training,” spokesman Robert Pszczel said at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

NATO leaders agreed to the mission at a summit in late June but had left details vague. The 26 NATO countries agreed a week ago to send the team after sidestepping a dispute between the United States and France over command of the alliance operation.

The group of 45 will report back to NATO headquarters Sept. 15 about proposed command links with the U.S.-led multinational force, which is expected to provide security. Washington was pushing for “unity of command” between the two, but Paris has insisted they be kept separate.

NATO will then decide how to proceed with the mission.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said he expected the initial mission to be followed by a larger force in the hundreds by early fall.

NATO’s role in Iraq so far has been limited to providing logistical backup to a Polish-led division working with the American troops. Sixteen NATO members have troops in Iraq but they are not under the NATO flag.

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